Cheese and chalks!

Every corner was wtf, every moment was mind blowing! I don’t know where to start as Cuba is one of these countries that left me speechless. In one same moment I happened to be disappointed and thrilled in the same time. So the best might be just start chronologically and tell you the tales that happened on our way.

We landed to Varadero and immediately went to Matanzas. We had our taxi already arranged by the hosting lady in Matanzas.

Matanzas

Matanzas is a small city next to the Varadero hotels resorts so kinda neglected by the tourists. I found it hypsterish and cute: there are streets falling apart typically for Cuba, the smelly river but lively river coast with bars, small restaurants and artistic shops that are more like garage shops but for Cuban standards these are the galleries.

River San Juan and the city of Matanzas, Cuba, West Indies, Caribbean, Central America

Our host was a nice Lady owning the casa particular where we stayed one night only. She was curious, helpful, offering hospitality and more. We slept in an improvised room with toilets barriers – not walls! Little privacy but we didn’t care. We knew what Cuba is and where we arrived. Except that in developed part of Europe you will not pay more than 15 EUR for this type of accommodation. We paid 25.

However, she had a lovely house and garden for the cuban standards thanks to this room renting. I concluded that Cuba is changing quickly from its socialism where richer are getting richer.

The next morning she prepared us breakfast and arranged for us the shared taxi to Havana. Cubans don’t have internet – here and there you can go online at some hotspots but only for a while as many people use these hotspots which are 3G only. So no photos no videos – only quick whatsapp message to parents that we arrived safely.

We were sharing our taxi with some two Cubans. The driver was particularly nuts. He was totally against the political system, media manipulation and demanding the private ownership.

The highways is a two way fast road – no middle fence to divide and protect. Quickly I noticed that everybody goes on this highway: from 80 years old cars and trucks til’ carriageways, horses, local field workers and even unsaddled horse wandering arround.

After two hours we arrived to Havana. I got out of the car, stepped into the dog shit and crashed the screen of my phone. The warmest welcome l ever had.

Havana

We passed next to the stadium. Baseball is their national sport. One of the pure things left from the times the US was influencing the country through its mafia and banking system – which was a trigger for Cuban The Revolution in 1959.

The Stadium of La Havana

Havana is the capital city. Founded by the Spanish in the 16th century and due to its strategic location it served as a springboard for the Spanish conquest of the Americas, becoming a stopping point for treasure-laden Spanish galleons returning to Spain. The sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine in Havana’s harbor in 1898 was the immediate cause of the Spanish–American War.

We climbed to the first floor of some old house in Havana Vieja. Our host was supposed to be the anesthesiologist. We rang the door bell. Wrong one. We rang the other one. Some Lady opened. Are you Belkis? -Si, porque?

– We have a reservation at your place. – Oh really, ok, what can l do? I have a room but is not ready.

Later we discovered that she pays other person to put her house renting on the internet but this time the person forgot to inform her.

The city attracts over a million tourists annually so the local people quickly discovered the value of foreign currency 25 times stronger than cuban peso (CUP) – trying to gain that one foreign peso (CUC) at every corner pumping the prices, cheating on services and even lying to attract you for some sightseeing. For example, we were about to go to The Museum of Revolution. The boy arrived quickly to us asking if we are going to the Museum and explaining that we shouldn’t go cause it is closed for the lunch time and that we should follow him to go to some bar with some cuban cigars sells offer cause today it is a very special day and all cigars are 50% off. We didn’t follow him, we went to the Museum which was open until 19:00.

Or another typical scam: a girl asked me for some chewing gum (children are not allowed to work nor beg as Cuba provides very good health and education care system which is totally for free). I didn’t have any so she said that today is her birthday and if I could buy her something in a nearest shop. I asked her if she knows the date. She knew. 🙂 So I decided to buy her some package of chewing gums still, I am a human after all.

Few seconds later, she entered to the store, returned the package of chewing gums and got her 1 CUC/ EUR instead.

Nevertheless, I do not recommend to stay no more that two full days in Havana. It stinks, it is Europe way expensive and has not that much to offer as the other locations and cities in Cuba.

We started our exploration with Havana Vieja – old Havana. Old facades that are falling apart, not much of the hygiene on the streets and the stinky canalization since Cubans don’t throw their used toilet paper in the flush but in the trash bin next to it. Lovely!

Let me show you the market:

Conquistador Diego Velázquez founded Havana in 16th century. Soon it attracted the pirates mostly from France like famous Pirate Wooden leg or in french Jambe de Bois.

Hence the french and mostly spanish influence in architecture.

Three centuries later and numerous luxury hotels, casinos and nightclubs were constructed during the 1930s to serve Havana’s burgeoning tourist industry, which greatly benefited by the U.S. prohibition on alcohol from 1920 to 1933. These was the time of art deco buildings in Cuba and its Belle Epoque. In the 1930s, organized crime characters were not unaware of Havana’s nightclub and casino life, and they made their inroads in the city. The US mayor of Havana wanted to create the casino city bigger than Las Vegas of its time! Casino, prostitution and money laundering was happening in the famous hotel buildings like the Hotel Habana Riviera, Hotel Nacional Casino etc. At the time, Havana became an exotic capital of appeal and numerous activities ranging from marinas, grand prix car racing, musical shows, and parks. It was also the favorite destination of sex tourists.

Cubans led by brothers Castro, CheGuevara and C. Cienfuegos decided to end this with the Cuban Revolution of 1959, so the new régime under Fidel Castro promised to improve social services, public housing, and official buildings. Nevertheless, Castro allowed USSR to put nuclear rockets on Cuba (the famous Cuban crisis in 1962) facing Florida, US which is only 40 miles away from Cuban shore. So US decided to make embargo. Cuban’s economy struggled suddenly since most of ts export was towards US. The other Caribbean countries are to poor to trade.

Leaning on USSR – it didn’t last long. USSR fell apart in 1990. Cuba becomes more and more poor, but as Castro says on the national TV: we are happy people, we dance, we don’t live for the money, we are small Nation but great Nation because we faced big USA.

Not like I am a big fan of US Government and its exploration of the Latin American continent for the entire 20th century but there is something wrong in Cubans when they look at tourists as people with dollar sign on their foreheads.

Our second stop was El Capitolio. The neoclassical building – the seat of the Republic of Cuba. Cubans say it is not the replica of Washington DC Capitol but they like to add that it is a meter higher, a meter wider, and a meter longer. 🙂 You do the conclusion here.

Across the street is the Opera house. We had amazing cocktails here with the view on the Capitolio.

Next thing we did was taking an old timer to drive us through the city. We read before on the internet that the ride should not take more than 20 tourist pesos aka CUCs (which is around 20 EUR). However, none of the drivers wanted to take us around for less that 40 CUCs.

Capitolio from the Havana Vieja street

So we got the stroll through Vedado – the district with houses of the rich and embassies. It was developed in the first half of the 20th century, during the Republic period.

In Vedado I saw brand new hotels. The driver explained that the night costs there up to 700 EUR. Later I was walking around these tall buildings again and people were approaching to me saying: Se acabo, se acabo con el socialismo. Meaning: it is finished with socialism. Pointing these huge massive 21 century hotel buildings.

We stopped at La Plaza de la Revolucion.

Plaza de la Revolucion

And then at some park with the statue of John Lennon. Apparently F. Castro did not allow to Cuban people to listen the music on english but Cubans still adored The Beatles. So F. Castro decided to built his statue.

The bar called Le Petit Paris for some cocktails and salsa dance. Never enough of Mojitos and Pina Colada. This is something Cubans really know how to do it – using their best rhum!

The rest of the day we wandered around the city, admiring, re-thinking, analysing, having fun and cocktails! 🙂 I had the best daiquiri in my life!

Of course, live music is in every bar. Salsa is everywhere. And so is the basket with the tips.

Food is bad though, but they will still ask for the tip, or propina in spanish, a EUR to go the toilet and a EUR for the music they just performed in the bar or a restaurant.

Most of the time, due to embargo, many items from the menu are missing. So the best is to go with the rice, lobster and some fish. During our stay, there was no beer for three days. People were literally driving around from the bar to the bar asking if they have some beer to sell. Talking about beer, they like to make it with some lime juice and ice. It is good, unusual but good at that heat 🙂

One of the bars had a nice examples of paintings in cubismo style. Picasso would be amazed, I am pretty sure.

The next day we were exploring the renovated part of Havana: Plaza de Armas, Cathedral, Plaza de Havana Vieja.

There is something about Cuban dogs always chilling at the middle of the road! XD

We strolled down the famous busy street or in spanish Calle Obispo and arrived to the Museum of The Revolution. The museum is housed in what was the Presidential Palace of all Cuban presidents from Mario García Menocal to Fulgencio Batista – the last US established president in Cuba.

Inside you can see items like the radio CheGuevara used to communcate or the socks of F. Castro. Poorly presented.

However, in the backyards are the vehicles that were taken from the dictator’s Batista regime like the food vendors truck and turned into army defence vehicle. Or the US plane that crashed into the sea near Havana which was long time searched by the US public together with the body of the pilot. US that time didn’t want to admit that they are involved into Cuban Revolution so they were not demanding the body to be returned for the next 40 years.

In front of the Museum is the monument to José Martí. He was a 19th century Cuban poet and philosopher, considered a Cuban national hero because of his role in the liberation of his country, and he was an important figure in Latin American literature. Very politically active, and considered an important revolutionary philosopher and political theorist. The political scientist in me is now coming to its peak 🙂  Through his writings and political activity, he became a symbol of Cuba’s bid for independence from Spain in the 19th century, and is referred to as the Apostle of Cuban Independence.

Cooling down at El Malecon. The broad esplanade, roadway, and seawall that stretches for 8 km along the coast in Havana. Watching the new cruise ship entering the city – bringing more money desperately necessary. Or maybe not?

Cubans like to hang out at the street. I was particularly amazed how kids are still playing outdoors, playing football, hide and seek etc.

In the afternoon, exhausted by the heat we decided to visit the House of Ernest Hemingway. In the local bar they told me not to pay more than 15 – 20 CUCs for both ways. There was no driver wanting to take us for less than 40.

It is not allowed to enter to the House but only have a look from the doorstep. However, there were 5 ladies sitting around and looking at tourists. One of them approached to me saying: This is the living room and this is the toilet. – Thank you Captain Obvious!

Hemingway had many books – she said, pointing to the obvious again. I decided to stay away from her. – Look, there is the work of Picasso, the Bull.

Then she said that we should go to Havana like all the other tourists and visit the places there. And of course, she asked for the money explaining how Cuban people is very poor people.

The gardens around the house are very beautiful. I recommend to watch the Pappa Hemingway movie, shooted exactly in this place.

We came back to Havana center to the Floridita bar where he was having his daiquiri. 🙂

The evening was reserved for the Buena Vista Social Club show. On our way to the building, at least 3 women approached to us starting the random conversation and then suddenly saying how tonight is a special night and all the tickets are 50% off hence we should go to Buena Vista Social Club and that in fact it is very close, just here!

Viñales

Sharing the car again with some old couple from Finland and a girl from Denmark. Two hours on a cuban styled highway. Before we arrived to this city, the driver decided to stop at some local farm or how they say in Cuba – una finca of the tobacco production, manual of course.

A typical tourist trap where they sell uncertified cuban cigars but we didn’t care. We were enjoying what we were seeing and learning. Plus, I met my Austrian friend that I haven’t seen for years! Small world, isn’t it? 🙂

When we arrived to the Pinar del Rio valley, to the city of Vinales I have noticed that tourism there already changed lots of things. Houses were new, reconstructed, more equipped (I mean, better shower and the toilet that is not falling apart).

The city is famous for the valley and its nature, the tobacco fields around and the cliffs painted by the hand from the pre-historical times. We decided to do the horse riding through the tobacco fields and cliffs and degustating local version of rum made of the special plant Guayaba only growing here in Vinales. They said so.

The biggest rain shower ever fell down on us and moistened me and my horse Mandarina. El sol del Caribe.

Moving forward, from the North West of the island towards middle south on the other side of it.

We planned to go to Trinidad and after it to the city found by French. We couldn’t as we lost lots of time in the meantime. We shared a minibus which happened to be the long 1952 chevrolet where they fir 8 young people from all over the Europe and the driver. We had to drive first to Havana as there is no other road and then down to Trinidad.

Ode to the socialism on our way to Trinidad:

Trinidad

We arrived in the late afternoon to the city of Trinidad. It is the colonial old town with cobblestone streets. I loved it! So much different from weird and stinky Havana. And local people and more calm and less pushy.

Its neo-baroque main square, Plaza Mayor, is surrounded by grand colonial buildings. We entered to some restaurant with the terrace and enjoyed the great sunset.

The Trinidad cocktails is a must! With traditionally bad food. But who cares, Cuba Libre! 🙂

Sleeping dogs again…

That night we decided to do some proper rum tasting. We started with rum blanco, the Havana Club of 7 years and Rio Anejo of 15 years.

We knew that the next day we will spend at the beach. After 5 days of wandering around it was time to chill for a day.

The third day in Trinidad we went a bit out of the city. First we went out of the tourist center and faced the real Cuba again. Poor houses, stinky smell, canalisation on the road, dogs licking it flies all around.

The afternoon we spent in the Valle de los Ingenios. It is the valley that used to be full of sugar cane fields and slaves working on it. We visited the 2 haciendas where Dom Pedro lived with his wife and a daughter, having the sugar production thanks to the massive slaving he kept behind the house.

The house was yet to be reconstructed again. I asked the local guide where is the furniture. He didn’t have the answer. Perhaps it was eaten by the Revolution, I thought?

Later he claimed how the nowadays slavery is in the money and capitalism which Cubans are resisting to gloriously even though they were hungry of the oil and flour in the 90s after the collapse of the USSR. I told him I am coming from Croatia and survived the war in the 90s.

There was a Belfry in front of the House of Dom Pedro. It was used as a guarding tower, and belling the slaves to come back to their shelters as the day on the plantage finished. The higher the tower, the richer the family.

Next to this improvised bath thub of Dom Pedro, just in front of the dwellings of the female slaveries, more than 50 bottles of wine were found. You do the math here.

Archaeologist depicted all the brutality that was happening here. Slaves chopped and in chains, their feces used fr the fertilisation of the soil etc.

We were driven to another hacienda. This one has been turned into the restaurant, had lots of furniture, a very big belfry and loads of local people selling souvenirs while being pushy. Even the our cuban driver was upset saying it is not authentic anymore.

Finally, as driving through this rich land, he mentioned that in these fields and mountains many Contra revolutionaries that were against F. Castro were hiding and plotting their attacks on Castro’s regime.

He brought us to the last stop: the sugar cane factory. After the discovery of the steam engine and abolished slavery, the production of the sugar became industrial. This factory was productive until the fall of USSR.

We finished the day with local cocktails: canchanchara and trinidad. And the traditional dish called Ropa Vieja, meaning the old clothes. It is the chopped lamb with some rice.

Santiago de Cuba

The 12 hours bus ride for the tourists only (but drivers picks up locals as well) turned to be 15 hours. Why to start on time? Why not to board all 50 tourists in the bus and let them sit one hour before the ride?

During our ride we passed through the cities like:

  • Camaguey – founded in 16th century by some spanish colonist, famous for Ten Years War against Spain.
  • Holguin – the location where Christopher Columbus landed
  • Bayamo – where the cuban anthem was composed. Also, the city where Carlos Manuel de Céspedes – a cuban revolutionary hero, and a plantation owner – freed his slaves and made the declaration of Cuban independence in 1868 which started the Ten Years’ War which ultimately led to Cuban independence.

We arrived around 23:00. The taxi drivers were fighting for us at the bus station. I decided to trust to some young black guy with dreadlocks. It was a mistake. He packed us in the old russian Lada, I got stuck for some wire. I asked if 5 CUC is ok. He said 20 would be fine. So we payed 15 EUR for a 5 mins ride to our hotel. The car almost died at the hill before our hotel. The guy was explaining to me that the car is old, needs more gasoline and because it is night so the prices are hire. I was furious so I almost decided to stop the ride and continue walking. The 1litre of the gasoline costs a bit less than one EUR here in Santiago. Not to mention that he wanted to give me back money in CUP (currency for Cubans which is 25 less valuable) instead of CUC.

The hotel was amazing. A real spanish colonial architecture. No wonder, since Spaniards firstly arrived here, built the city and then moved the capital to Havana. So there is always a bit of the competition between these two cities.

We fell asleep as dead. The room had 30 years old chinese air conditioning but we dint care. We just needed a shower and the bed.

The next morning was the hottest. Santiago is in the pure south of the island and more close to the Carribbean temperatures and lifestyle. Even if it was winter there was 29 degrees. Locals had socks and long sleeves in the morning. Cause it is winter time!

We visited the Bacardi’s house. The guy who started the Bacardi rum production. A mason who liked to collect the artifacts from around the world so his house is kinda museum of the Cuban history containing the artifacts from the pre-colombian indigenous people Tanejo or the egyptian mummy that he brought after his travel to Egypt in 19th century. I mean, to be honest, there was no souvenirs that time, right? Totally understandable.

We continued exploring the old streets. There is not much toursits in the streets so the locals are pushy. Sometimes in a good will, sometimes just to tell you in which restaurant you should go cause they get provision.

Needless to say that I had very much difficulty to understand their spanish.

The Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of the Assumption was built in 16th century and is more beautiful than the Cathedral in Havana. I told you – competition!

The Balcony of the already mentioned Diego Velázquez – spanish discoverer and later mayor of the city was built in the 16th century, where from he was watching the maritime traffic to avoid surprise attacks of the pirates and corsairs. The building was finished many years later due to the constant interruptions for fighting against the indian uprisings that needed both money and men destinated to the ravelin.

Little bit more of the lifestyle of the Cubans in Santiago:

We discovered the school of F. Castro but we were not allowed to make photos. He went to Jesuit school. Just like Macron. 😛 Next to it was the building of the police station during the time of his rival Batista. Apparently next to it was the house where F. Castro lived but I could not locate it if it really was there since the locals were giving me mixed instructions. ??

The long white building is the Jezuit school of F. Castro, the yellow building is the former Batista police station where F. Castro was imprisoned twice

And strolling down the city to the sea.

Time to chill next to the sea.

The Museum of Rum. Literally the 3 rooms and quick peak to the nowadays factory and its machines – some three window glasses behind, and the cup of taste of the rum Santiago de Cuba. Which stands against the rum from Havana Club. Competition again.

Be careful of another potential scam! Bacardi rum doent exist in Cuba anymore.

Being the mayor of Santiago de Cuba, Bacardi family remained in Cuba with the difficult task of sustaining the company during a period of war. The women in the family were exiled in Kingston, Jamaica. After the Cuban War of Independence and the US occupation of Cuba, “The Original Cuba Libre” and the Daiquiri were both created, using Bacardi rum. During the 1959 Revolution, the Bacardi family acted as an intermediary between the revolutionaries and the CIA to assuage the latter’s concerns. Family members, employees, and facilities were put to use by the movement and the company supported the revolution publicly with advertisements and parties. But their support turned to opposition as the pro-Soviet Che Guevara wing of the movement began to dominate and as Castro turned against their interest.

 The Bacardi family and the company left Cuba after the Castro regime confiscated the company’s Cuban assets on 15 October 1960, particularly nationalizing and banning all private property on the island as well as all bank accounts.

We wanted to go to the Cemetery of Santa Ifigenia. Suddenly this boy appears on his ripsaw bicycle and says 5 CUCs but for 10 he brings us to the city later on.

He didn’t bring us to the city later but to Plaza de la Revolucion which was easier for him to bike and he asked 12 CUCs because he had an offer from other tourists but he ditched them off because of us. Really??? Is he calculating the time and efforts against the profit? How is that called? Oh yeah – capitalism 🙂 Nooooo…… :O

Nevertheless, the Cemetary where all the greats are burried. Including F. Castro – very simple and nice grave, the Bacardi with his mason pyramide, Cespuedes etc.

In Cuba – people stand in line. Waiting for groceries. We witnessed for this so many times. Sometimes they wait in line for the other people and make money out of it. Sometimes they fight who will enter first as the groceries are missing. We witnessed that too.

Santa Clara

Again the 10 hours ride with the Viazul bus for the tourists only but this time during the night so we slept until the morning. We picked up many locals on our way. God knows where were they going. We ride again through Carretera Central through the same villages. And finally we arrived to the city of Che Guevara – where the last battle of The Revolution appeared.

I have to say, it was the poorest city we visited, and the most poluted with garbage in the streets and river. But people, they live of Che Guevara and don:t push for the peso.

Travelling entire night, we quickly changed our clothes in nasty nasty dirty toilets that are charged 1 EUR. No soap, no flush. First stop was neoclassical normand church. Don’t ask how this occurred here.

Next stop was the open musuem of trams which Che Guevara attacked in Movimiento 26 Julio hence the signs M-26-7

The trains full of weapons were sent by Batista from Havana towards the South where from F. Castro started the Revolution. After the attack, Batista ran away to Florida.

The last stop was Che’s mausoleum, There is a 7 meters statue above it and the monument with his last letter to Castro after the success of the Cuban Revolution explaining how he needs to continue his battle against the imperialism. He was that time the Ambassador in United Nations, the Director of the Cuban National Bank and the hell of sexy revolutionist that went to fight to China, Colombia, Angola, Congo and finally died by assassination of CIA.

I know you are here to kill me. Shoot, you are only going to kill a man not the Revolution.

Apparently the mausoleum contains his grave, although controversial as he was killed in the late 1960s but body found in early 90s and brought to Cuba…

We ended our day in Santa Clara sitting in some coffee place of some Spanish guy who arrived some 20 years ago to Cuba to visit and stayed for ever. His bar is full of marxist collection.

Varadero

Our final destination – the hotel resorts. And we really needed it.

The internet was a bit better, the food was still bad, cocktails were amazing, beaches stunned and tourists were mostly mid-level Russians. And so were their actions.

We spent entire day on the beach having cocktails and playing big boarded chess. Oh what a times!

The resort is total tourist trap and less authentic to Cuba. The Beatles and american rock music of 90s screams from everywhere. The restaurants are trying to imitate the classy European restaurants so you can eat some fondue in Cuba of goat cheese from Cuba, or have pizza 4 Formaggi but only 2 types of cheese – cause embargo!

In the evening we went to Cabaret show! It was amazing! 🙂

So long Cuba! You hit me hard but I still love you and would recommend you always. Don|t change to much, stay authentic as much as possible! Authentic and clean!

Hasta la victoria!

8 Comments »

  1. Thanks for providing a lot of information. Havana has always been on my bucket list and I can’t wait until I visit. Great pictures! Thanks for sharing !

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